We’re going to miss you, brother. You sure gave us one hell of a gospel, bluesy, rock, funky, soul show for the better part of 60 years. And just to show us you could do it and well, you threw in some country music to broaden your legend. There will never be another one quite like you; you were an original artist, a hell raising, wild child with an uncanny Forrest Gump-like ability to always be in the right music place at the right time. You were the Preacher, the Poet and the Midnight Mover. Your raspy, sandpaper voice and otherworldly screams get our attention as much as your revealing lyrics and sublime musical arrangements. You overcame being ostracized by music labels, being shot at by your wife, drugs, alcohol and tragedies. You pushed it all aside and kicked ass and took names as a singer, songwriter, musician and producer. And you did it your way. You were soul music royalty, and even when your albums didn’t sell as well as your contemporaries, you were still held in high esteem. You were the man with the big, funky sunglasses who told stories that were incredibly enlightening. The testimonies you gave always reached us, whether we were at a family gathering, house party, club or speakeasy. You talked and sang to us as if we were all together in the same room. Every time you fell down, you always bounced back, with each reinvention of yourself timeless and golden.
Bobby, I feel like I wanna testify for you this evening.
If you think you know Bobby Womack now, just wait until this piece is finished.
It’s hard to put a finger on Bobby Womack’s legacy. The man toed the line between the sacred and secular, between drugs, sex and rock & soul like few before him. Many colorful and descriptive adjectives, both good and bad, fit the man that was Womack. Prodigy. Showman. Scoundrel. Womanizer. Addict. Preacher. Poet. Womack wore them all, whether he was touching the pinnacle of his successful music career, or whether he was at the depths of despair from the vices that held a firm grip on him. He was the quintessential soul man; an artist who explored his deepest convictions, fears and beliefs in his music, revealing everything to us, yet nothing.
There are so many greats to which his life parallels. Like Hendrix, Womack was a supremely gifted self-taught left-handed guitarist who played his instrument upside down. Like Sly Stone, Bobby started out on the gospel circuit as a child performer in a family band, before becoming a star in the secular music world. And like James and Marvin, Bobby wanted his music to be made his way, and he battled with his record labels to ensure he held a good measure of creative control. (Ironically Womack either played or toured with all of the aforementioned greats.) The man was so versatile and wore so many hats, it’s hard to feature just one aspect of his career. And that’s just how he wanted it, to be musically boundless and never pigeon-holed to just a specific title or genre. We all know Bobby Womack was a soul man extraordinaire; he was clearly one of the premier soul talents ever and arguably the genre’s greatest. But Womack also wrote and sang rock and pop tunes, ventured into jazz, was a blues staple and even dabbled in country and western. Womack was a man given to electric feats of music brilliance, and also prone to drugs, tragedy, scandal and heartbreak. And that’s also how he wanted it. The man, his music and his life are all intertwined in one big soul music book that often changed directions with each chapter.
Born March 4, 1944, in Cleveland, Bobby Womack grew up like most black folks in America during the World War II era; hard-working, poor and loving the Lord, especially on Sundays. The third of five boys, Bobby came from a musical family. Both of his parents were singers and musicians. The brothers became a gospel music group in the early 1950’s. Billed originally as the Curtis Womack and the Womack Brothers in the early 1950’s, the group played at gospel shows all around Cleveland, which is where they were discovered by Sam Cooke, who was still singing with the Soul Stirrers at the time. Cooke, after successfully transitioning over to secular music, later signed the Womack Brothers to his SAR label and after releasing a few gospel cuts, rechristened them the Valentino’s. After moving the brothers to LA and mentoring them to life in the R&B world, Cooke then got the Valentino’s on as the opening act for James Brown at the Apollo Theater. A task master who was short on patience with neophyte acts, the straight-shooting, hard charging Brown helped the Valentino’s develop and hone their live performance chops, just like Cooke knew “Mr. Dynamite” would. The Valentino’s enjoyed chart success with the Bobby penned songs, “Looking For a Love” and “It’s All Over Now.” Cooke convinced the reluctant Womack to allow the Rolling Stones to cover “It’s All Over Now,” which became the band’s first number one song and an international hit in 1964. Bobby, the standout among the Womack Brothers, became the lead singer of the group, the youngest musician in Sam Cooke’s touring band and an emerging songwriter.
Fate took a bad turn for the Valentino’s in late 1964 after Sam Cooke was killed in an LA motel. The group disbanded after SAR
Records folded in the wake of Cooke’s death, and a 21-year old Bobby got his first taste of scandal when he married his mentor’s widow, Barbara, a mere four months after the soul singer’s death. Their union caused a rancor throughout the Cooke family and in the music world, as some believed Womack took advantage of a grieving widow while stabbing his deceased mentor in the back. (Womack, however, says it was the other way around) Considered somewhat of a pariah with his career in limbo, Womack spread his music wings and flew to Memphis where he became a session musician at Chips Morman’s American Studios, playing for the likes of Aretha Franklin, Joe Tex, Dusty Springfield and Wilson Pickett. For Pickett, Womack wrote 16 songs, including the hit tunes, “I’m in Love,” and “I’m a Midnight Mover.” Womack also played on Elvis Pressley’s hit song, “Suspicious Minds.” After finding success as a musician and songwriter, Womack returned to Los Angeles where he dived into the music scene, forging partnerships with a variety of artists, including Janis Joplin, Ron Wood and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. He wrote two songs, “Trust Me” and “Mercedes Benz” for Joplin for her “Pearl” album. Womack was also the last person to see Joplin alive on the day she died from a heroin overdose.
Womack then jumpstarted his solo career, signing with Mint Records and releasing “Fly Me to the Moon” in 1968. The albumyielded Womack’s first commercial hit song, “California Dreaming,” a cover of the Mamas and Papas tune. While getting his solo career together, Womack continued to expand his musical horizons. In 1969, he partnered with Gabor Szabo, and wrote “Breezing,” which later became a classic hit for George Benson. He also played guitar and helped co-produce songs on Sly Stone’s seminal album, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.” A second album released in 1969, enjoyed modest success. Then in 1971, things all came together for Womack after the release of “Communication,” which featured the top-five R&B hit, “That’s the Way I Feel About ‘Cha.” Womack hit his stride with the release of “Understanding in 1972. The album featured “Harry Hippie,” which become Womack’s first gold record. Another song off the album, “A Woman’s Gotta Have It,” was Womack’s first number one R&B hit.
Womack released the soundtrack for the film, ‘Across 110th Street’ in 1972. The title track, which was better than the actual film, became an instant classic that’s filmmakers still clamor for, including such films as ‘Jackie Brown’ and ‘American Gangster’. In 1974, Womack released “Looking For a Love Again,” which featured his second number one R&B single, “Looking For a Love,” a remake is the original 1962 Valentino’s single. Everything was going aces for Bobby. But as it often is when you’re on top, tragedy is never too far away. Womack’s brother Harry was stabbed to death by a jealous girlfriend in ’74 while living in Bobby’s house. Bobby’s infant son, Truth, died from suffocation in 1976. Womack’s cocaine use, a habit he began the late 1960’s, was now a full-blown addiction. Productive yet seemingly uninspired, Womack continued to churn out albums in the late 70’s, but none brought the commercial success that his earlier work did. It wasn’t until Womack reinvented himself with 1981’s “The Poet” that he enjoyed a resurgence, with the album reaching number one on the R&B charts, and the classic hit single, “If You Think You’re Lonely Now,” peaking at number three on the singles charts.
But chart-topping success doesn’t define Bobby Womack’s legacy nor his place in music history. It never did. With Womack, it’s how the man moved you when you listened to his music. Womack broached topics in ways that his listeners felt. While he might’ve walked on the wild side outside of the studio, he gave sage advice in his music to both male and female listeners. As a kid growing up in the south, I could walk into any liquor house, and if a Bobby Womack record was playing, the chatter immediately stopped, and people would focus in on what he was saying. It was like Bobby Womack school was in session for adults. And nothing’s changed. Step inside any liquor house, juke joint, or speakeasy, and you’ll find out real quick just how revered Bobby Womack is. While he never enjoyed great Top-40 success, Womack was a staple on the R&B charts, and to African-Americans and devoted fans worldwide, Bobby Womack was a pied piper of sorts, the man who gave you a musical sermon in just three minutes. I had the pleasure of meeting Bobby Womack once. I was a college student working at a restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina, when
Womack, fresh from a performance in town, came in with his entourage, which consisted of three beautiful women. This was in 1985, during Womack’s “The Poet II/So Many Rivers” years, when he was still on fire and still producing hits. As he walked to his table, a good number of people were pointing and staring and hoping to make contact with him in some way. Some of the patrons clearly didn’t know who Bobby Womack was, but they certainly could tell he was someone famous, by the way he sauntered around and how people, some of which were at his show, received him. As I was brooming the carpet around Womack’s table, he said to me, “Do it with pride, young blood. Ain’t nothing wrong with doing honest work,” Womack then proceeded to get up from the table, take my broom and do my job for me, much to the delight and laughter of the lovely ladies and people sitting nearby. He gave me back the broom and said, “See? I ain’t afraid of hard work, young blood, don’t you be afraid either.” I nodded in his direction, shook his hand and went back to my station. A waitress came up to me, and unaware of who Bobby Womack was, asked if he was a comedian. Like me, she was a college student, but white and heavily into rock, so she had no idea she was looking at a living music legend. I told her quite matter-of-factly, “No. That’s Bobby Womack, he’s a music poet, and one of the best to ever do it.” I never forgot that moment in time. And I’ll never forget you, Bobby Womack. The world will never forget you. Your music legacy is intact, and what an impressive body of work you had. Job well done. You’re with the rest of the legends now.